colleges

Universities Play the Victim in Admissions Scandal, but They're Far From Blameless

Higher education is a moral mess.

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In the recent college admissions fraud scandal, the universities are the victims. Or at least, that's the official position of Georgetown University, which sent an email of talking points to its faculty after news broke that the school's former tennis coach Gordie Ernst was involved in the bribery scheme. At first glance, they're right.

But digging a bit deeper, the schools are far from blameless. This episode—in which celebrities and other elites are accused of bribing college officials and cheating on standardized tests to help their children get into elite colleges—reveals a number of unflattering things about academic business ethics.

It's no real surprise this sort of thing happens. Georgetown, like every other university or large corporation, suffers from a principal-agent problem. Employees are supposed to serve the institution's interest, but often professors, administrators, staff, and students can serve themselves at the expense of everyone else. In this case, the people in question, such as Ernst, are alleged to have committed criminal acts.

In some cases, though, such behavior is perfectly legal and hard to check. For instance, in our forthcoming book Cracks in the Ivory Tower, we find that the more financially needy a department is, the more frequently its classes appear as gen-ed requirements. There's little evidence these gen-ed classes teach the skills they're supposed to, so the best explanation—at most colleges—is they exist to inflate departmental budgets at the expense of students.

Elite universities are a kind of ideological paradox. On one hand, faculty and staff overwhelmingly identify with the Left and push social justice causes. But on the other, the universities are hierarchical and reinforce social hierarchies. They serve as gatekeepers of prestige, power, and status. Many have plenty of physical capacity to expand the number of students they admit, but they instead work to keep admissions rates and the number of undergraduates as low as possible, all to enhance the elite status of their brand.

Some of the celebrities in question, such as actress Felicity Huffman, frequently campaign for social justice. Yet, when push comes to shove, we see them (allegedly) using their advantages to secure further privileges for their children. This sort of thing happens throughout academia. Loud, enthusiastic trumpeting of moral slogans conveys the image that one is good and noble, and so people have a selfish interest in being political outspoken. But, half the time, when you dig in, you find that moralistic language actively disguises selfish behavior. It's often just a pretense to ask for more money and power for one's self.

Many commentators complain that donors often buy admission for their children in a perfectly legal way: You pay for a wing in our athletic building; we let your daughter into Cornell. If that's okay, they ask, what's so bad about outright bribes? One might try to defend universities by saying that donors at least pay to help other students. At least some endowment money and donations go to fund financial aid, defray tuition, or supply world-class instruction that couldn't be covered by tuition. A bribe to a tennis coach brings no further benefits to other students.

Still, the admissions scandal reveals several unflattering realities about the institutional incentives of higher ed. The dollar amount of the bribes and the tactics used, including falsely registering applicants as athletic recruits for sports in which they had no history, illustrate that it's far more difficult to be admitted to an elite school than to graduate from it. Parents wouldn't pay if their kids had little chance of graduating. It means many rejected applicants would have succeeded if admitted.

Elite universities present their admissions standards as a screening mechanism to ensure that students can cut it an intellectually challenging classroom environment. Yet evidence that students study and learn little, a pervasive culture of cheating, and a decline in scholarly rigor among faculty provide reasons to doubt this claim. Once in, just select an easy major from the politically activist departments, and earning your elite degree is a cakewalk. Indeed, one of the beneficiaries of the bribery scandal appears to have routinely skipped her classes at the University of Southern California in order to pursue a parallel career as a world-traveling Instagram celebrity.

Despite the relative ease of coursework, admissions remains an extremely scarce commodity at elite schools. The average Ivy League school accepts fewer than 10 percent of its applicants, and other elite institutions maintain similar levels of exclusivity.

So what's actually happening here? Quite simply, these institutions (and likely all universities) are selling a credential rather than the loftier pursuits of "knowledge" and "intellectual enrichment" that litter their marketing materials. When grades are meaningless, cheating is pervasive, and the rigor of obtaining an elite degree succumbs to political activism and other forms of fashionable nonsense, the admissions office becomes the primary rationing mechanism for this scarce and coveted credential. Admissions officers have a long history of allocating spaces at elite institutions for reasons other than merit. Should we be the least bit surprised that they are also susceptible to bribes, corruption, and celebrity influence?

The value of a credential from an elite institution derives not from its curriculum, or the "lifetime of knowledge" it instills, but from the prestige associated with its name. Top universities pride themselves on having a rock star faculty of Nobel laureates and Pulitzer prize winners, on securing prestigious research grants and other competitive honorifics, and on attracting "the best" students. For the same reason, universities are often unforgiving when a prominent faculty member commits plagiarism or fabricates data. If it also turns out that politically and economically connected parents can bribe their way past the rationing mechanism of the admissions process, the associated credential will lose some of its prestige and decline in value.

Therefore, we should expect the universities implicated in the most recent bribery scandal to play the victim, even when their own discretionary admissions policies and corrupt officials helped to make it possible.